Social Media and the Tyranny of the Extreme

Image by O12 from Pixabay

The internet as we know it today caters toward the unique, unusual, extreme, and simple, at the expense of the mundane, mainstream, nuanced, and complex. What is worse: social media platforms are making the extreme seem mainstream, normalizing radical ideas and encouraging even more extreme ideas to spread.

In a way this is nothing new: traditional media skews our lens of reality as well, albeit not as much: your average sitcom or drama offers life as a collection of action packed scenes, the 24 hour news cycle has to keep manufacturing interesting, unique, or controversial events to capture your attention, and reality TV shows us what life would be like if we tried to condense it into 20 or 40 minute installments. However, the internet has the advantage of increased connectivity and virality, giving it an orders-of-magnitude advantage over traditional media in its ability to shock and awe us, and skew are thinking: online, we not only have access to the best and most outrageous traditional media has to offer, but we add to the deluge with our own comments, posts, pictures, videos, and blogs. We don’t have to call our friend and tell them to turn on the TV — we can text them a link, tag them in a post, or simply click share, or press retweet. Our friends in turn don’t even need to turn on the TV or open their computer, they can pull out their phone and open an app instead.

There’s somewhat of a paradox here: the insertion of the individual voice into media should help it become more moderate and reflect the average opinion, right? When my mom posts about my little sister’s skating competition last weekend, that post in theory is competing for attention as much as an Olympic figure skater’s record setting routine.

Social Media as the Land of the Extreme

Of course that’s not how social media works, thanks to the algorithms and mechanics that govern our major content platforms. On Facebook, my mom might get a few dozen likes from supportive friends, but they in turn will not feel motivated to share the video. After all my family friends know my sister and my family, but a random person who has no emotional connection to my family would likely find my sister’s video well, average (sorry sis). Feeling uninterested and bored, the internet stranger would either move on to the next video, or worse (for the social media company) they’d log off or browse elsewhere. Perhaps if something shocking happened — if my little sister skated in a gorilla costume, perhaps — then my family friends would be more likely to share her performance.

Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

If Your Friend Was an Attention Hog

I only belabor the point because the internet is chock full of uninteresting content, and likely thousands if not millions of children’s figure skating routines — only you’ll never see them. Instead, you’re much more likely to see the same few pieces of content that millions of other people will see. The algorithms governing social media want to maximize your screen time, and want you to be as entertained and captivated as possible, because that’s how they make money. Please also consider how this stands in stark contrast to daily life: when talking with a friend, he or she is much more likely to play the role of a proud parent and show off their daughter’s figure skating, rather than share the random Olympian’s flawless performance. While your friend appreciates your attention, they’re not competing against your other friends for your attention. If they kept saying, “Wait, I have one more video to show you, you’re really going to like this one!” you’d be a little creeped out, and all the more likely to end the conversation — but this is exactly how social media operates.

When the Extreme Becomes Mainstream

While the figure skating example is cute and innocent, the rules governing the internet and our current social media platforms become much more sinister when you turn to political stories and ideas. The more extreme the idea — the further from the norm and consensus — the more likely it is to strike a chord (either extremely positively, or negatively) with an extreme minority, which will feel validated or shocked into sharing it further. Notice how these ideas are, at least initially, only validated by a very slim minority of the population. Meanwhile, mainstream ‘vanilla’ ideas which may be common sense and the majority of the content, but do not illicit strong emotional responses, are drowned out by a small minority because they do not achieve the same amount of shares, retweets, and virality.

Notice the immediate consequences: because the extreme ideas are more likely to be shared and reach a wider audience while simultaneously drowning out the original mainstream ideas, they are in turn more likely to be seen or understood by the majority as more widely accepted than they actually are: an extreme idea can quickly become interpreted as an ordinary idea if it is shared enough times. We become desensitized to the extreme and normalize it, just as we might begin to undervalue the extraordinary effort and achievement of a flawless Olympic figure skating performance, if enough of them are shared enough times to become considered commonplace — and especially if we don’t see the video of our family friend’s child’s figure skating performance as a sort of baseline. We lose our barometer for what the normal or average idea is — and thus begin to believe that the extreme idea is the new normal.

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The Downward Spiral of Extreme Virality

This is why the phrase ‘Tyranny of the Extreme’ is appropriate: the algorithms that govern our current platforms give extreme ideas and phenomenon the influence and eventually the appearance of normalcy and the average, suppressing the true or prior normal. It allows an extreme minority to govern public opinion, because our understanding of normal is not static, but dynamic: as the prior extreme comes to be understood as the new normal, it in turn can be usurped by the extreme of the extreme: the process has a devastating flywheel effect that can quickly spiral out of control.

This negative feedback loop is only exacerbated by traditional media catching on to the trend. Because more extreme and outlandish ideas generate more shares, views, and ultimately, more revenue, traditional media companies like newspapers are encouraged to produce content that is more controversial, giving even more credence to previously extreme views. It also doesn’t help that traditional media seems to spend more time echoing what extreme views are shared on social media, rather than calling out the platforms themselves for their complicity in the Tyranny of the Extreme.

Ordinary Life is Ordinary

The Tyranny of the Extreme in social media stands in stark contrast to how political discourse operates in the physical world: when you are discussing politics with your neighbors or family friends (in the rare situations this actually happens), you are much more likely to feel compelled to compromise and to find opportunities to agree with them rather than argue over an idea you know is semi-controversial. After all, they’re your friends, and you don’t want to risk your friendship over politics. Behind the semi anonymous protection of a username or computer screen, however, you’re much more emboldened to share content that may shock or offend — particularly since that is the content which you are more likely to be exposed to in the first place, so much so that it appears normal (at least, on the internet).

However, it’s the sad reality that the people that spend more time online are less likely to be social in the real world, and that this has its own negative feedback loop (particularly among children). The people that could use the inoculating effect of a real conversation and its tendency to promote consensus the most are the least likely to get the help they need, and the negative feedback loops of extreme content and screen time exacerbate each other.

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Thinking Hurts

There is another factor which is exacerbated by social media and further supports the tyranny of the extreme: our tendency to favor a simple explanation over one that is more complex or nuanced. This tendency is fueled by several other biases: confirmation bias, causality bias, and attribution bias just to name a few, but you don’t need to read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow to understand the natural aversion away from complex ideas and the cognitive dissonance they might generate toward the overly simplistic arguments that dominate our current discourse. It is easier to share and promote an idea that the solution to our immigration problem depends on the construction of a physical wall versus the difficult, convoluted process of immigration reform. Similarly it is easier to share the idea that economic inequality is caused by a greedy 1% rather than via economic shifts such as globalization and increased automation, just as it is easier to promote an the simplistic and sweeping Green New Deal versus a more nuanced, less far reaching argument in a market based approach. In each of these comparisons, which idea has been shared more on your social media feeds?

The Difficult Fight Against the Tyranny of the Extreme

So what can be done to fight against this tyranny? Since social media is the environment in which extreme ideas are able to dominate, either we must hold them accountable, or vote with our voice and ditch them. It’s clear that social media platforms recognize that they are complicit in the promotion of extreme ideas: both Twitter and Facebook have recently banned individuals that they deemed guilty of perpetuating dangerous, divisive, hateful rhetoric, drawing the ire of President Trump.

However, extremism is a many-headed hydra, and banning a few high profile extremist accounts is like fighting Measles with anti-itch cream: social media platforms are fighting the symptoms, not the disease. In fact, banning a few individuals only serves to promote a narrative of victimhood among extremists which can have even more detrimental effects as they use this narrative to continue promoting their ideas. Routine banning and shadow banning is an ineffective short term solution and likely causes more damage in the long run.

If Your Doctor’s Name was Measles

Of course the social media platforms also have little incentive to fight the disease, because they are the disease. It is the platforms themselves and their rules that promote the viral and extreme over the mainstream and mundane. Only significant alterations to the platforms themselves will result in meaningful changes to how ideas spread. For example, Facebook has routinely tweaked its News Feed to promote content from your family and friends over publishers and brands. Social media platforms could require connections / followers to prove that they know each other, by requiring users to input each other’s emails or phone numbers in order to connect.

Social media platforms have little incentive to make these changes, however, if they negatively impact revenue: it is naive to believe that companies will operate against their profit motive, even if we believe it’s the morally correct thing to do. Government regulation could be an option, but this flies in the face of Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment, and giving the government the ability to regulate what counts as extreme is an even worse idea than allowing social media companies to remain unregulated.

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A Market Opportunity and the Power of Consumer Choice

Ultimately, I think it is up to consumers to determine which platforms and content distribution rules succeed: these platforms rely on our time and engagement to survive, so it is up to us to vote with our time and choose platforms which promote and distribute content in a healthy manner. While I think no platform is close to ideal at this point, I can tell you which platform is the most dangerous: Twitter. By allowing one way following and limiting discourse to 280 characters (the average is 33), Twitter is all but guaranteeing that overly simplistic, radical ideas win out over nuance and critical thinking. While the current environment of idea sharing on the internet is bleak, it also opens a path to entrepreneurship: a platform that finds a way to successfully replicate the way ideas are synthesized over the dinner table will earn my attention, and the advertising dollars (or other forms of revenue) that come with it.

The First Step is Recognizing The Problem

If there is not a clear solution at this point, the best call to action I can offer is one of awareness and education. When you see the front page of Reddit or scroll through your Facebook, remember that you’re not seeing the consensus, but the extreme, and when you see a video of your neighbor’s kid figure skating, consider giving it a share. You can also limit your screen time (screen time has been linked to lower well being among teens and adolescents anyway), and subscribe to traditional media publications which are less likely to promote extreme ideas. There is also opportunity for a cultural conversation: how much should we value entertainment over education in our free time, and what role should the internet and social media play in each? Or why do we allow different social norms to dictate our internet behavior, versus the conversations we have in daily life? These are ripe areas of research journalists and academics are just beginning to discuss and explore.

In the end, even if you don’t end up changing your behavior, the first step toward ending the Tyranny of the Extreme, is recognizing it exists in the first place, and understanding the roles social media companies and human psychology play in its perpetuation. The first step toward successfully treating a disease, is a correct diagnosis.

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